Cape Traverse and the winter steamer Petrel

A look at the map will show that the shortest distance from Prince Edward Island to the mainland is between Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine.  The Capes route was the site of the undersea telegraph cable and the winter iceboat service. However the steamer services took longer routes between Summerside and Shediac, and Charlottetown and Pictou. The building of branch rail lines between Sackville and Cape Tormentine and Countyline (Emerald Junction)  in the 1880s added to the attractiveness of the nine mile, one hour crossing as opposed to a four hour crossing between other ports.

Cape Traverse from the beach looking north about 1900. Rail cars can be seen on the wharf. The station and Alex Strang’s Lansdowne Hotel are on the east side of the photo. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 2353/492

Cape Traverse in 1880 showing wharf

A pier had been built at Cape Traverse (more properly Traverse Cove) by the 1860s and had been extended several times to increase the depth of water at its outer end and the railway ran down right onto the wharf. Although much of the community was along the road to Bedeque just to the north, development during the 1880s would be at the harbour especially after 1884 when the branch line railway to the Prince Edward Island Railway main line was completed and a station and engine house were built and a 24 room hotel built across from the station.

Advertisement for Lansdowne Hotel. Frederick’s P.E.I. Directory 1889-90

In the 1890s pressure was on the Dominion government to increase the quality of the winter steamer service. Ever since the winter steamers and iceboat service had begun operations there were those who held that a steam vessel could travel the Strait even in mid-winter as several observers, including several of the ice boat captains maintained that open water was frequently encountered in the crossing at the Capes. Even if the ships might not be able to go from port to port they might be employed to cross between the board ice which held fast to either shore. With the building of piers at both Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine this was increasingly held out as an attractive alternative to the usual winter steamer route between Georgetown and Pictou. The lack of water at both Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine made it almost impossible for the large ice steamers the Minto and the Stanley to stop at either location except in the most ideal of circumstances.

In 1896 the Ministry of Marine and Fisheries was prevailed upon to make a practical trial of the idea. At the time Louis Henry Davies of Charlottetown was Minister and the decision may have been a desperate measure to show that the government of the day was at least doing something in response to increasing demands for improved winter communications. The Department’s Marine Advisor, Captain M.P. McElhinney, who had experience both with the iceboat service and the winter steamers was mandated find and charter a  vessel to test the proposal.  A steel screw steamer, the Petrel, was leased for the winter of 1896-1897 to make steamer crossings at the Capes. The Petrel was 129 feet long and displaced 346 tons. She had been built as a tug and towboat in 1892 at Collins Bay, near Kingston Ontario, and in 1895 was owned by the Collins Bay Rafting and Forwarding Company. In spite of her small size she still drew nine and a half feet, making docking at Cape Traverse problematic. A compounding issue was that her engines were reported to be only twenty-five horsepower giving almost no ice handling capacity. At the time of the acquisition by the Government she was described as having “fair accommodation for passengers.” Her only adaption to the conditions of Northumberland Strait was to carry on her decks a couple of iceboats so that if detained by pack ice passengers and mails could be sent ashore. Before beginning service she was sent to Pictou to have additional sheathing fitted and the local newspaper there commented that “She does not look like a boat that will give satisfactory service.” Several sources state that there was no pier at Cape Traverse and that she would have to dock at board ice.

She was placed in service in mid-December 1896, initially scheduled to run between Cape Tormentine and Summerside to which port she made three round trips early in December, but was very soon the route was moved to Cape Traverse where she was expected to cross for the rest of the winter. However it was not long before the practicality of the steamer route was tested and found wanting. On one of her first trips the Petrel had to return to Cape Tormentine as the board ice on the Cape Traverse side was not strong enough for her to land her passengers. By 26 December it was reported that the Petrel’s steering gear and sheathing had been badly damaged by the ice and that she was imprisoned by the ice at the pier at Cape Tormentine and might not be able to resume work. The Petrel was soon subject to editorial ridicule, some of which was occasioned by political posturing. She was mocked for not being able to deal with ice which was too weak to carry passengers. The Examiner observed that as soon as experienced persons had seen her on her arrival from Lake Ontario they recognized that the ship would never do at all and suspicion was widespread that she had simply been leased from her Ontario owners as a political favour. The only benefit from her having been stranded in Cape Tormentine was that “she cannot again be carried to and fro in the straits at the mercy of the elements or go to the bottom with all on board.”

Due to fortuitous ice conditions early in the month she was able to make seven round trips on the Capes route, all before 15 January, but could not make not a single additional trip until 17 April. To add insult to injury, within the following week, on a voyage from Cape Tormentine to Summerside she encountered some drift ice and broke her propeller shaft, thus bringing the less than glorious performance to an end. Her total service amounted to transport of seven mails and 43 passengers over the six months of her charter. With her passenger fare revenue of only $86 the cost of more than $15,000 for the winter’s non-service was condemned as extravagant.  She was returned to her owners on Lake Ontario and the experiment, although lauded by the government as a success was not repeated.   The Petrel stood as a symbol of the failure of the government to fully address the winter navigation issue for several years. This was to cause a further problem when the unsatisfactory vessel was confused by politicians and the press with a different vessel of the same name which served in the area as a Dominion Government patrol vessel and during the Great War as H.M.C.S Petrel.

Although the clamor for more powerful steamers and improved wharves to provide winter service at the Capes continued into the twentieth century there appear to have been no further attempts to improve the facilities at Cape Traverse. For several years one of the Dominion ice steamers would run in early winter from Summerside to Cape Tormentine but after about a month that route would ice up and the steamer would be shifted to the Georgetown to Pictou route.

In 1912 the fate of Cape Traverse as a major port was sealed by the decision that the most practical route for the Capes crossing of the proposed car ferry steamer would be from Carleton Head to Cape Tormentine. The shallow sandy bay of Cape Traverse was trumped by deep water and even though the new route required significant engineering works it was still preferred over investment in an existing, but impractical alternative. A new branch line was constructed to run to Port Borden from a junction near Carleton and using, in part, labour from German prisoners of war was upgraded to carry a third rail so that standard gauge trains could run on it. Trains continued to run on the branch line to both Port Borden and Cape Traverse up to the end of 1917. A new schedule which took effect on 21 February makes no mention of service to Cape Traverse. The rails were taken up soon afterwards.

Air photo of Traverse Cove about 1935. The wharf has deteriorated to a significant degree and has been shortened although remains can be seen in deeper water. The photo clearly shows the sandbars and shallow water which made the port unsustainable.

Over the next decades the winds and tides and sands ate away at the nearly half mile wharf at Cape Traverse which continued to harbour a few resident fishermen into the 1970s. Today only a small rockpile extending into Northumberland Strait hints at the hamlet’s glory days as a port. The rail line was diverted to the new terminal at Port Borden and the part of the line from Carleton to Cape Traverse was abandoned. Today one can hardly trace its route through the fields and fence lines. At Port Borden a new town was laid out according to best urban design principles and soon grew to accommodate ferry and railway employees and local businesses. In some cases houses and buildings were hauled from Cape Traverse to the new townsite. The sands of Traverse Cove are visited today by few other than the local residents and owners of cottages in a subdivision which has sprung up near the former village.

A more detailed copy of this article which includes sources and references can be found here .

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1 thought on “Cape Traverse and the winter steamer Petrel

  1. Pingback: A Public Boon and a Private Success? The Richibucto to West Cape Ferry | Sailstrait

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